Today?s college student is no longer a poor scholarly waif subsisting on ramen and cheap beer. College students now account for $24 billion in discretionary spending each year (or an average $211 a month spending money), according to market research firm Harris Interactive. And while this may not translate into college kids racking up large grocery bills at your store, it does mean that they may buy a quality shampoo instead of using their roommate?s smelly dandruff product.

If manufacturers and retailers have not worried much about selling to college students, they soon will, said Lynea Schultz-Ela, principal of A Natural Resource consulting firm in Hotchkiss, Colo. ?College kids traditionally wanted big and cheap, but the needs and desires of college kids are changing,? she said. ?They are raised in a culture where their needs have been catered to, and they will want the products their mothers use and will demand that products perform. If they can think up a product, they will want it.?

?It?s during the first two years of college that they make brand decisions that will be there for the rest of their lives.?
Although many naturals manufacturers have not yet developed lines designed especially for university students, the demographic is on their minds. ?To grow, you have to get more consumers into your brand every day, and getting them in college is a great time because it?s during the first two years of college that they make brand decisions that will be there for the rest of their lives. So we definitely think that that?s a very important group to talk to and have a relationship with,? said Diana Wang, director of marketing for Culver City, Calif.-based Jason Natural Cosmetics.

When developing its Red Elements line, the younger consumer was definitely in the minds of the Jason staff, Wang said. ?The line is a clean, basic line that?s easy to use, with a texture that absorbs quickly and is more appropriate for younger skins. The packaging is very updated and streamlined, with a younger appeal on the shelf.?

For Curt Valva at Tampa, Fla.-based Aubrey Organics, marketing products to college kids is a no-brainer. ?It?s a segment of the population that?s a bit more open-minded; they?re already in an academic atmosphere, so they are ready to learn,? he said. It?s also easy to communicate the importance of natural ingredients and recycling because the typical college student isn?t jaded yet. ?They?re like sponges,? Valva said. ?And they?ll pay a bit more when they feel like they are doing the right thing—for a product that?s vegan, hasn?t been tested on animals or comes in a recycled package.?

During the past year, the company has begun to redesign its product labels, some of which are 30 years old. Because Aubrey doesn?t make a youth line, it has worked hard to include that demographic in its new labels. ?The label has to speak to [college kids] just like every other consumer,? Valva said. To that end the new labels are clean and quickly communicate the product?s benefits and social values. But making a label that appeals to everyone is not so easy. ?It has to look good on mom?s nightstand and on a dorm room shelf,? he said.

In its advertising to college students, Aubrey is careful not to condescend. ?These people are bright and don?t want to be tricked into buying products; if they see photos of flashy college kids, they?ll dig their heels in and not buy,? Valva said. In print advertising, the company tries to use a combination of groups and lifestyles.

Aubrey often looks to the core organic consumer to determine what works for college students. ?You can learn a lot from the organic consumer because social values are important to both [college students and organic consumers],? Valva said.

Kiss My Face in Gardiner, N.Y., has had success with college-age consumers from the get-go because of its products? playful, colorful packaging, said Herbie Calves, marketing director. The company has learned that it pays to market the product in conjunction with a campus event. ?College students are smart and savvy; they know when they are being marketed to,? he said. So when you can tie your product in with an environmental cause, they appreciate that, he said.

Schultz-Ela said participating in events at college campuses is an effective marketing tool for retailers as well. And when students see a product tied into an environmental event, that marketing will create student loyalty, she said. But, even if they agree with your environmental stance, not all college kids can afford higher-end personal care, so consider offering coupons at the same time.

Although the folks at EO Products in Corte Madera, Calif., don?t worry too much about marketing their products to the college set, they are working to inform the younger generation about the potential health hazards in personal care products. EO has partnered with a Marin, Calif., chapter of The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to educate young women about the chemicals in their skin care products. ?It?s our way of reaching out to younger women,? said Victoria Palmisano, the company?s brand manager. ?We want to empower young women to make informed decisions and to realize what they are putting into their bodies.? The group is also exerting pressure on manufacturers and the government to limit the use of toxic chemicals in personal care products.

So should naturals retailers worry about selling more health and beauty aids to college students? It depends completely on the store?s location, Schultz-Ela said. ?If they have a location near a university, then they should market to that. It?s a great opportunity.?

Retailers can start with the front of their store to bring students in, she said, by offering student discount cards to reach college kids.

A college student in a natural products store is just looking to learn, said Valva. ?They are in education mode. They are probably going to be more receptive than the mother with two kids who just dropped her keys.

?Retailers might be surprised at how much time a college student is willing to give them.?

Anna Soref is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer. Reach her at asoref@gmail.com.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 6/p. 70-71